Today, we're covering what I feel like is the most intriguing portion of the schedule. We could look back at these four games preceding the bye as either the easiest or most difficult stretch of the season and neither would surprise me all that much. We're cramming an extra team into this preview, so feel free to take a breather midway through as long as you promise to come back and finish what you've started. Because you're not a quitter, are you?
Let's begin with two teams who have more in common that you might think...
2013 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.4 (overperformed by 0.6 wins, ninth-luckiest)
Record in Close Games: 3-1 (.750, third-best)
Strength of Schedule: negative-4.6 percent DVOA (fourth-easiest)
Turnover Margin: plus-12 (fifth-best)
2013 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 11.1 (underperformed by 0.1 wins)
Record in Close Games: 3-3 (.500, tied for 16th-best)
Strength of Schedule: negative-7.0 percent DVOA (easiest)
Turnover Margin: plus-18 (second-best)
When looking at the underlying numbers from last season, these two teams share each other's company almost across the board. And while there are loads of differences on a micro level-some of which I will touch on-they are so similar at a macro level that I decided to discuss them in the same space to avoid repeating myself.
Philadelphia's six-game improvement in the win column in Chip Kelly's first season was bested only by the nine-game improvement by Kansas City under Andy Reid. The Chiefs jumped 26 spots in the overall DVOA rankings, the largest improvement in the league; the Eagles followed closely behind with a 20-spot jump. In 2012, the two shared the worst turnover margin in the league at minus-24; in 2013 they each finished in the top five with two of the league's lowest interception rates driving the massive swing. They were both incredibly fortunate in the injury department, going from below average health in 2012 to finishing 2013 as the two healthiest teams in football.
Combine all of those factors with two of the NFL's easiest schedules and you have the recipe for a speedy turnaround. Now, as we enter 2014, the Eagles and Chiefs find themselves in a situation very similar to that of the 2012 49ers. After rebounding from terrible seasons to experience success in their first seasons under their new head coaches, can they defy the historical odds and maintain those gains in year two?
From a roster construction standpoint, outside of the draft, both teams were content to stick with what they had and look to build continuity in year two under their new head coaches.
For Philly, the biggest changes came with the addition of safety Malcolm Jenkins and the decision to cut ties with wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Jenkins wasn't great during his time in New Orleans, but it would be nearly impossible for him to fail to be an upgrade over Patrick Chung, the Eagles starter at free safety last season. They will need Jenkins to reinforce the back end of a pass defense that ranked 25th in DVOA and was clearly the team's weakest link a season ago.
The return of Jeremy Maclin from injury and the selection of Jordan Matthews in the second round of the draft will help offset the loss of Jackson, but neither player gives Philadelphia the vertical threat that Jackson provided. If Chip Kelly's offense can continue to create wide open throwing lanes for Nick Foles, Jackson's departure may not matter. However, you could construct a solid argument that without Jackson stretching the defense vertically, those holes underneath will begin to shrink.
For Kansas City, essentially every significant piece of the roster will remain the same in 2014. Cornerback Brandon Flowers was released a month ago, but he'll be replaced in-house by familiar face, Marcus Cooper. The former 49ers seventh-round pick got off to a hot start with the Chiefs but really tailed off over the second half of the season. The Chiefs are obviously banking on seeing more first-half Cooper than the one who never recovered from the abuse handed to him by Peyton Manning.
Getting back to our question from a few paragraphs ago, will simply standing pat be enough for each of these teams to return to the playoffs for a second consecutive season? I'm pessimistic about their odds.
Adding the NFC West to their schedule this season all but ensures they will face a more difficult schedule than the cupcake-filled ones they had last year. If we were to stop there, it would likely be enough to drop each team by a game or two in the win column. I mentioned earlier how fortunate these two teams were on the injury front last season. As I wrote about back in March when looking at the 49ers' injury prospects for the coming season, injuries are a historically un-sticky aspect of football from one season to the next. A few more injuries in 2014 will test each team's depth and the loss of a key player or two could send things spiraling out of control in a hurry.
How these two teams improved last year is where things begin to differ and is what could ultimately be the difference in their outlooks for 2014.
Kansas City's improvement was spurred largely by a defense that went from 30th to ninth in DVOA, a special teams unit that went from 22nd to first and replacing turnover machines Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn at quarterback with the hyper-conservative Alex Smith. Smith's low interception rate and propensity for dump-offs will probably stick around but the massive improvements on defense and special teams are unlikely to do the same. Defense and special teams are historically far more inconsistent from year to year than offenses are and if the Chiefs slip even a little bit in those areas, not even Jamaal Charles can save them.
That final point is why I'm a bit more optimistic for the Eagles. Philadelphia's improvement was almost entirely the product of Chip Kelly's offense as their defense and special teams remained in the bottom third of the league, just as it was in 2012. The Eagles offense is simply far more talented than the Jamaal Charles-show that is the Chiefs offense. Throw in the fact that Peyton Manning is standing in the Chiefs way while the Eagles play in the wide open NFC East and it's enough to make me think Philadelphia will still be playing games that matter in December while Kansas City will already be waiting for 2015.
2013 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 7.6 (underperformed by 0.6 wins, 10th-unluckiest)
Record in Close Games: 1-3 (.250, second-worst)
Strength of Schedule: 6.2 percent DVOA (third-hardest)
Turnover Margin: even
It's been a full decade since the Rams have finished a season above .500. When St. Louis went 12-4 in 2003, they were running on the final fumes of the Greatest Show on Turf with Marc Bulger, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt still leading the charge. Following that season, the bottom fell out and the Rams went eight seasons without finishing higher than 25th in DVOA, remarkably finding themselves 30th or lower in six of those eight seasons.
Six head coaches later, Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have done an admirable job gutting the roster and fielding competitive teams with the league's youngest set of players. Totaling seven wins in each of the past two seasons, St. Louis still hasn't cracked .500 but they have found themselves with a positive overall DVOA in each year, a feat that seemed impossible after bring up the rear for the better part of a decade.
Expectations for St. Louis continue to mount as we await the moment in which all of these young players take the next step in their development and finally get the Rams back into the playoffs. If 2014 ends up being that year, several things will need to happen but a good place to start would be consistency.
Struggling with inconsistency is something that you would expect from such a talented, young team, showing flashes of brilliance one week and failing to do anything but make the bus the next week. This is exactly what we saw from the 2013 Rams. Using Variance—Football Outsiders' measure of game-to-game consistency using the total DVOA from each game—as our tool for evaluating consistency, only the Eagles were more up and down than the Rams a year ago.
St. Louis mixed dominating victories over Indianapolis (78.7 percent DVOA), Chicago (52.3 percent) and New Orleans (56.7 percent) with absolute bombs against Dallas (negative-78.6 percent), San Francisco (negative-77.2 percent) and Arizona (negative-68.4 percent). Cutting out the Jekyll and Hyde routine will go a long way towards making a run for the playoffs and would be a reasonable step forward for such a young team.
Some more luck in games decided by a touchdown or less would also help matters. Only the Texans had a worse winning percentage in such games, though St. Louis played in a league-low number of close games, opting instead to either kick ass or get their ass kicked on a week-to-week basis.
Speaking of kicking ass, we can expect the Rams' defensive line to open up a healthy-sized can of whoop-ass on the regular in 2014. Mike Tanier summed up the havoc created by the St. Louis front four nicely in his look at the league's best and worst front sevens:
Here is what you need to know about last year's front four of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford: they combined to make 196 plays, from sacks to run tackles to batted passes, which is a very high total for a defensive line. Opponents netted a total of 78.7 yards on those plays, including yards gained or lost before turnovers. So those four players accounted for 12.25 plays per game that amounted to 0.4 yards per play for the opponent. And that's before they hurry a quarterback into an incomplete pass or occupied blockers so the linebackers and safeties could go to work. Think of the Rams defensive line as starting each game with four three-and-outs that leave the opponent punting from about the 22-yard line, and you get a sense of their impact.
Then to make matters more terrifying, the Rams added a player who most considered to be the top interior defensive lineman in the draft in Aaron Donald with their second selection in the first round of the draft. The secondary is full of youth and question marks—extra emphasis on the question marks at safety—but it won't matter when quarterbacks are fleeing in fear immediately after the snap and running backs can't sniff the second level.
At the end of the day, the Rams prospects for 2014 likely come down to the topic I've spent eight paragraphs avoiding: Sam Bradford. Improbably, Bradford is only 26 years old and Rams fans can still cling to a sliver of hope that the former number one overall pick will finally take the leap and establish himself as the franchise quarterback St. Louis seems to think he is.
The depth chart at wide receiver is loaded with players taken in the first three rounds of the draft and if Jeff Fisher can get Kenny Britt to shelve the crazy for five months, he has the physical ability to be a bona fide number one option in the passing game. The Rams drafted Auburn's Tre Mason to compliment Zac Stacy in the backfield, hoping to improve upon a rushing offense that ranked 28th in the NFL. It will be up to Bradford to get the most from the many highly-drafted skill position players at his disposal.
The defense combined with expected decline from the Cardinals will be enough to move the Rams up a rung in the NFC West ladder, but if they want to push for a Wild Card spot the offense will need to start carrying its weight.
2013 Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 11.7 (overperformed by 1.3 wins, fifth-luckiest)
Record in Close Games: 2-3 (.400, 10th-worst)
Strength of Schedule: negative-6.6 percent DVOA (second-easiest)
Turnover Margin: even
The Broncos are going to continue to be really good at football as long as Peyton Manning plays like Peyton Manning. Welp, that was easy...
We could end this section now and have pretty much covered everything we need to know about the Broncos. But since we're both here, let's go ahead and make it worth our while.
Manning and the Broncos' passing offense finished atop the league in nearly every relevant category, rewriting the record book in the process. Denver led the NFL in scoring offense, point differential, offensive DVOA, pass offense DVOA and red zone offense DVOA. It was the sort of ruthless efficiency that we're unlikely to see again for quite some time.
You may have noticed from the information listed above that the Broncos outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 1.3 wins, the fifth-highest difference in the league. That would typically lead you to believe that the Broncos could drop a couple of games in 2014. That is until you remember that Peyton Manning laughs in the face of Pythagoras. That difference from Pythagorean expectation to actual wins wasn't the result of a high winning percentage in close games as it often tends to be. For the second straight season, Denver actually finished below .500 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Denver also managed to put up back-to-back 13-win seasons without the benefit of turnover luck. After finishing with a turnover margin of minus-1 in 2012, the Broncos improved ever so slightly in 2013 to break even. The biggest reason they've had a relatively poor turnover margin for a team of their caliber has been some terrible fumble recovery luck. Denver recovered just 38.5 percent of available fumbles in 2013, the third-lowest rate in the league which happened to be the exact spot they finished 2012 in as well.
If there's an area where Denver has been incredibly fortunate over the past two seasons—you know, other than having that Manning guy—it's been the schedule. The Broncos have faced the NFL's second-easiest schedule according to DVOA for two years straight now. That will almost certainly change with the NFC West on the slate for 2014.
Perhaps in anticipation of the brutal games that await them against the big, bad NFC Best—or maybe it was nightmares from the dismantling that occurred during the Super Bowl. Yep, on second thought that was probably it—the Broncos spent much of the offseason overhauling a defense that needed to get more physical.
DeMarcus Ware comes over from Dallas to give the Broncos the pass rusher opposite Von Miller they lost when Faxgate sent Elvis Dumervil to Baltimore. Ware will be 32 years old by the beginning of the season and is no longer the All-Pro caliber player he was at his peak, but he can still be an effective complimentary player. Health will be the key factor for Ware. After being a beacon of health during his first seven seasons in the league, Ware has started to struggle with injuries over the last two seasons, finally missing three games in 2013, the first time he's failed to suit up for a game in his career.
Ware is the biggest name added to Denver's roster this offseason but it is in the secondary where the biggest changes were made. The Broncos will have three new starters on the back end of their defense this season: cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward were added via free agency to go along with first round selection Bradley Roby.
Ward is an in-the-box, enforcer type that will have receivers looking over their shoulder when entering the middle of the field. Talib has the ability to shut down the opposition's number one receiver when he's healthy and at the top of his game, but he's yet to show he can be at the top of his game with any kind of consistency. Like Talib, Roby has had issues with consistency and off-the-field problems, but was considered to be the most physically gifted cornerback by many in a draft that saw five of them go off the board in the first round. Together, the three new additions will add a level of toughness and ability to a defense that sorely needed it.
From last year's starting four, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is gone, but Chris Harris and Duke Ihenacho are still around to provide some much needed veteran depth.
There were a few changes on the offensive side of the ball as well. Namely, Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer will replace Eric Decker at wide receiver. But that side of the ball was hardly a concern and let's be honest, losing Decker wouldn't have changed that.
This offseason was about trying to immediately boost the defense to attempt to squeeze every last molecule of air out of the championship window provided by Manning. The Broncos were the class of the AFC a season ago and only New England is in position to challenge them for AFC supremacy in 2014. But as they found out in the Super Bowl, they had a long ways to go before they could match up with the more complete teams in the NFC. Will Ware and the revamped secondary be enough to close that gap? Time will tell, but with Seattle, New England and San Francisco all on the schedule in the first nine weeks we shouldn't have to wait until February to find out.